49ers Stunned After Patrick Willis Announces Retirement

Marcio Sanchez/AP Images
Marcio Sanchez/AP Images

When NFL superstars retire unexpectedly, you can feel the collective gasp.

It’s the gasp you hear when one team fumbles and the ball lies unprotected on the turf. The air sucks out of the stadium, the crowd falls utterly silent—save for maybe a terrified shriek—until the uncertainty is erased. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next, but everyone knows it’s going to change the game for good.

Per Yahoo Sports’ Rand Getlin and CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive lineman Justin Smith are expected to retire Tuesday. If they do, the Jim Harbaugh era will be completely, utterly over. Between those two stalwart defenders and the likely departures of free agents Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati, the 49ers would lose a collective 20 Pro Bowl nominations and seven first-team All-Pro nods.

New head coach Jim Tomsula, promoted from defensive line coach, might have been chosen in part to preserve momentum and continuity for the 49ers’ strong veteran nucleus. But with Harbaugh coordinators Vic Fangio and Greg Roman already working elsewhere, Willis, Smith, Gore and Iupati likely gone and star receiver Michael Crabtree also an unrestricted free agent, there is no veteran nucleus.

Even starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick is on the trading block, per a report by KBME SportsTalk 790’s Jayson Braddock, though 49ers general manager Trent Baalke has since denied that is the case, via Maiocco.

Baalke and owner Jed York have willfully ripped the heart out of one of the NFL’s most talented, successful teams. Now the patient is lifeless on the table, and it’s an open question whether they’ve got the expertise to revive him.

Willis, almost immediately after being drafted 11th overall in 2007, became the best inside linebacker in football. His rookie season, in which he put up four sacks, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and 135 solo tackles, established him as one of the NFL’s premier defenders. Together with partner NaVorro Bowman, Willis put together a stunning run of dominance, racking up seven Pro Bowl nods and five first-team All-Pro nominations.

Justin Smith spent the first half of his career in Cincinnati, where he was a two-way 4-3 defensive end. Incredibly stout against the run but lacking the pure speed to consistently get around the corner on NFL right tackles, the 2001 fourth overall pick never topped his rookie-season best of 8.5 sacks. His move to San Francisco didn’t get much fanfare—but his immediate impact as a 3-4 end brought plenty of accolades.

His second season in San Francisco, Smith started a five-year streak of Pro Bowl nominations. In 2011, he earned first-team All-Pro honors. Unbelievably, Smith had the exact same number of official sacks, 43.5, during his seven years in San Francisco as his first seven years in Cincinnati. Despite switching to a position where sacks are harder to come by, Smith was just as productive a pass-rusher from age 29 to age 35 as he was from 22 to 29.

In the 49ers’ first season with Smith and Willis together, the team finished 23rd in scoring defense, per Pro Football Reference. In the following year, 2009, it finished fourth. That started a stretch of four times in five years in which the 49ers had a top-five scoring defense. In 2014, they finished 10th.

Smith’s retirement is a shock, but not necessarily a surprise. He entered the league in 2001, just ahead of retired defenders like Richard Seymour and Andre Carter, and will turn 36 on Sept. 30.

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SOURCE: Bleacher Report
Ty Schalter

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